No Easy Fix for U.S. Schools

A chronicle of a long, Sisyphean battle over the country’s largest profession.

Trying For Aces.

Education is the Bermuda Triangle of America’s bureaucracy—a black hole in broad daylight, where good intentions, together with the funds that fuel them, tend to vanish without a ripple. The role call of those who have tried, and failed, to upraise the American school system is as disheartening as it is august. Presidents have been stymied, and congressmen have been snookered. Plutocrats have been thwarted with the pointy-heads. And it has all been to little purpose. In 2010, as Steven Brill writes in Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $28.00), “American children ranked fifteenth in reading literacy, twenty-fifth in math achievement, and seventeenth in science among the world’s developed nations.”

Puzzlingly, money has not been the problem. The dismalness of America’s record is compounded by the cost at which it has come. “Even accounting for inflation, we’ve more than doubled what we spend on education in the last thirty years […]. We are now spending about 50 percent more per student than what other nations spend.” It is a downpour, and yet it has failed to quench the drought. The broken system is soaked in cash.

Education is also something of a time capsule. In 1960, approximately one-third of all private sector employees paid union dues. “By the turn of the twenty-first century, private sector unionization had declined to about 7 percent.” Public sector unions, however, remain muscular. At the turn of the century, they encompassed 35 percent of public sector workers, a proportion of the eligible that is equal to what private sector unions harnessed at their height. The mightiest of these unions belongs, unsurprisingly, to the largest of the public sector professions—also the largest profession in the land. “In fact, 3.2 million K-12 teachers [constitute] … the country’s largest profession,” Mr. Brill notes.

Teachers’ unions are a last, cantankerous relic of the ancien régime of organized labor. They passed the period of labor’s general decline in the swinging style of their salad days, alternately prodding and goring the would-be princes of Democratic politics. “From 1989 through 2010, the NEA [National Education Association] and the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] together contributed $60.7 million to candidates for federal office, far more than any other union, business, or interest group,” Mr. Brill writes. “With 95 percent of it going to Democrats, their impact on the party was in a class by itself.”

Unions are engines of conservative self-interest; it is how they have been designed. They exist to amass advantages for their members, and to foreclose the imposition of disadvantages. Initially formed as a protection against the caprices of willful principals, who could fire teachers with impunity into the 1960s, teachers’ unions evolved as their members’ circumstances improved. This involved a lot of evolving. Teachers’ unions “fast [became] the largest, richest, and most politically powerful unions in the country.” Now they are impelled, largely, by the pursuit of perquisites. Also, privacy. At contract renegotiation, they unfailingly ask for more money, and to be left alone.

Although it is never wholly cynical, this quest for ever greater increments of cushiness can certainly look that way. The criticism, when it comes, contains the seed of a slogan: unions are “worrying more about the adults than the children.” Unions have traditionally replied with the argument that the advancement of their self-interest redounds, indirectly, to the functioning of America’s schools. Happier teachers are bound to be more effective teachers. That is the theory, anyway, and for decades, the bulk of elected Democrats have echoed it, with all the avidity of their desire for re-election. Mr. Brill’s book is about the emergence of notes of dissonance within this echo—notes that flared into a full-blown chord when Barack Obama, “the first-ever Democratic president elected without significant support of teachers’ unions,” took office in 2009. It is, therefore, also a book about a campaign to redraw the grid of pieties within which Democratic politicians are permitted to roam.

Education reform (the remodeling of the system, rather than the refurbishing of it) has historically been the preserve of Republicans, and it reflects the passions and preoccupations of that party: privatization, personal accountability, freedom of choice and truculent union-busting. How Democrats came to share in the ardor for a project so ripe for their antipathy is a tortuous story. Mr. Brill has spared us few of its intricacies. The result is an exhaustive saga of a bureaucratic machination—which is to say, something of a yawn.

The reform movement began, fortuitously, in the 1980s, amid a din of mild imperialism and alarm. The National Commission on Excellence in Education of 1983 had been convened in the expectation that it would produce “one of those long, soon-to-gather-dust reports.” Instead, it unloosed a screed. “We report to the American people,” it reported, “that . . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The decay was ascribed to the headless bureaucracies running the schools.

The president was chagrinned to discover that he had discovered something. “[Reagan] almost didn’t allow the commissioners to present their paper to him,” Mr. Brill writes. Eventually, he quelled this reluctance, and consented to “at least [talk] about the need for a greater federal role in advancing local solutions.” In time, these rumblings of centralization from on high would be augmented by grumblings of disillusion from below. New teachers, buoyed by “the yuppie volunteering spirit” of the ’90s, were appalled by the listlessness of their settled colleagues. They were also dismayed by the untouchability accorded to them by the unions, which forbade the laying off of senior teachers before their junior peers. There was a push for more exacting job evaluations, and its corollary, performance-based pay. There was a pushback. This sequence repeated itself. Meanwhile, charter schools became a vogue.

Unionized educators, like young children, impose a sentimental claim on the liberal mind. The effect of the reform argument, which suggested that teachers’ unions had become “an obstacle to the American dream rather than the enabler,” was to explode a smoke bomb over the democratic orthodoxy. It was a confusing time. The default arguments were no longer clear; the soft hearts of democrats were drawn asunder. It was also a time when you could inconspicuously rearrange the furniture. “Indeed, something unusual broke out across America: a substantive policy debate that engaged a broad swath of the citizenry and their elected officials in villages, cities, state capitals, and in Washington.”

Apostles of reform palatable to the Democrats emerged. Bill Gates was one of them. So was Joel Klein, the erstwhile chancellor of New York City’s schools. So was Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political action committee, was struck, to flood the coffers of reformist candidates for office. “It was as if all of these Democrats had harbored a secret sin…that they were now willing to talk about publicly in a large group,” Mr. Brill writes. Gradually, the flock was conducted into the toasty manger of the inevitable. When Mr. Obama won the presidency, in 2008, he authorized Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education, to formulate a contest for state-level educational reform. It would be called Race to the Top. Reformers jubilated.

Yet the Race to the Top has disappointed many of its supporters. Like the unions before it, it has struggled to distinguish the deceptions of self-interest from the exigencies of authentic reform. “Pendulums swing back violently when they have been pushed too far in one direction,” as Mr. Brill writes. Or as Kafka wrote, “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” New York has already won Race to the Top twice; Louisiana has yet to win. New York’s educational credentials are among the most woeful in the country. Louisiana’s are sterling. “If this weren’t so tragic it would be funny,” Mr. Klein reflected. Another New Yorker may have put it best. To quote Peter Venkmann, “I’ve been slimed!”


No Easy Fix for U.S. Schools